Bell and Drum hutong safe from wrecking ball

Construction starts on the Beijing Time Museum on Thursday. Xue Jun / for China Daily
Construction of the Beijing Time Museum near the Bell and Drum towers began late last week, finally burying a previously proposed plan for a massive redevelopment of the ancient area.

“No hutong or courtyard houses will be pulled down for this museum and its location and size will not affect the local atmosphere,” said He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a Beijing-based NGO.

The museum, planned by the new Dongcheng district government, will occupy a 0.6-hectare site southeast of Gulou, or the Drum Tower, with one floor above ground and three floors below ground.

The new plan is modest compared with the old proposed redevelopment that covered an area 20 times bigger – 12.5 hectares – and involved the demolition of several ancient hutong nearby.

Gulou, which is located at the northern end of the city’s ancient central axis, was built in 1272. Together with Zhonglou, the Bell Tower, it was used to announce time for more than 600 years through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1206-1911).

Now, the whole area is a major tourist attraction because the surrounding hutong, courtyard houses and residents represent a relatively timeless look at old Beijing.

In January, the former Dongcheng district government announced a plan to redevelop the area around Gulou and Zhonglou into a “Beijing Time Cultural City”.

The proposed 5-billion-yuan “facelift” was scheduled to have been completed before the end of 2012.

It would have included a cultural square where public art would have been installed to celebrate the time-keeping role of the two towers and an underground complex comprising parking lots, shops and a museum.

The plan immediately provoked a heated debate among scholars and netizens, who raised concerns about the future of the two prominent historic landmarks and the ancient homes around them.

The district government responded to the public concerns in March by emphasizing that only hutong and courtyard houses within the scheduled redevelopment area would be razed and not the two towers themselves.

He said the protection of cultural heritage is about more than looking after a few isolated landmarks, it’s also about protecting the neighborhoods around them.

“Hutong, courtyard houses, the two towers, local residents and traditional lifestyle are closely related to each other,” He said.

“Even though the towers were not set to be demolished, the loss of the surrounding hutong would have left us with a modern neighborhood and two ancient buildings.”

The preservation of old Beijing has become a major concern during large-scale reconstruction projects in the city.

He said concerns about how areas are redeveloped arose after completion of New Qianmen Street.

The street that was once a symbol of the city’s thriving and vibrant neighborhoods was rebuilt between 2005 and 2008.

Business along the Ming Dynasty -style commercial street has been poor, it is reported.

While cultural experts were horrified about the proposed “Beijing Time Cultural City” project of the Bell and Drum towers area, some residents said they would be prepared to move into a more modern home.

“The average area of each house is less than 20 square meters here,” said a 60-year-old man surnamed Liu whose family had lived in the area for generations.

“There is no central heating in the winter and we have to walk a long way to the toilet.”

He Shuzhong agreed residents in the area deserve modern conveniences, but said the area should not be demolished just to bring those conveniences.

“There must be a solution that does not involve relocating them and that’s our next goal,” he said.

And other experts agree.

“The ancient culture of the Bell Tower and Drum Tower area is not simply bound up with the two towers or a museum,” Li Wangang, a scholar, wrote in a comment in Beijing News.

“The best way to preserve the culture is to protect the features of the neighborhood.

“A thorough picture of the ancient culture can only be experienced through the interaction of the hutong, courtyard houses and the towers.”

By Wu Wencong, China Daily
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